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The Fallacy of Helping

By Valerie Linson   |   Tuesday, August 30, 2011
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My grandmother washed white people's clothing for a living but she would never call herself "the help." The movie The Help, made me think about her. Out of all of the characters in this film, Minnie (played by Octavia Spencer) comes close - outspoken and charming, though she would never bake and serve her poop. The author of the book, Kathryn Stockett, said she based Minnie on Spencer, a very good friend hers. The man who made the movie, Tate Taylor, said that Spencer was his former roommate.

My grandmother never brought her work issues home despite the clear indication that Kathryn Stockett makes in her fiction. The lives of the white people that my grandmother worked for and the children that might have been in her care were not central to her life at all. The women and men that work for white people are more complex than what we see in the movie and read in the book.

Taylor was at the screening of the movie when I saw it. He spoke afterwards, calling Stockett one of his best friends. He said that a black woman raised him too. They clearly want people to know that there is something about being raised by a black woman that distinguishes one type of white person from the next. I get the sense that it’s about people helping people. This explains why Taylor said in an interview that he “peppered” the movie with friends and family, including his dad who played Sissy Spacek’s boyfriend or his mom, who had a one-liner. I wondered if the five black men in the film, each doing “domestic” work, were friends of Taylor’s too.

I hated The Help and Spencer should have her racial credentials lifted for helping her friends craft a big FAT lie.

Candide at the Huntington: Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman takes on a flawed classic.

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, July 25, 2011
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Since its Broadway opening in 1956, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has drawn theater and opera companies to its rocky shoals with results that range from leaks to total wreckage.  The composer's take on the classic Voltaire satire involved the work of many hands. Lillian Hellman took first honors for the book, but others poked, prodded, pruned, or puffed up, the libretto. The list of Bernstein's collaborators is a mini-who's who of American theater: Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim (and that's just the "A list").  Perhaps its first hearing--in a read-through at MIT, of all places--was the best of all possible versions. It may be that that this slender, mordant novel just doesn't want to be onstage!

That hasn't kept theater and opera companies from trying. The score is a sumptuous delight, but the piece as a whole has seldom jelled. In the '90's Boston Lyric Opera brought a handsome, but rather inert production from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to town; more recent productions by Opera Boston and the New England Conservatory reaffirm the magic of the musical score--Bernstein's songs weave gold from musical idioms as diverse as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy duets, '60's folk songs, and Shostakovich--but these great numbers risk stopping the show's forward momentum. And even the score isn't stable: pieces have been reworked and re-orchestrated, lyrics toned down, or songs dropped. In one case, the inquisition scene was gutted for a New York production to spare the sensibilities of Walter Kerr, then head drama critic of the New York Times, and a Roman Catholic. Poet Richard Wilbur was pleased with his lyric, "What a day! What a day! for an Auto-da-fe," referring to a burning at the stake that was turned into a jaunty vaudville-style number for the show, in line with Voltaire's original savage satire of the Catholic church. But it all got nixed. I guess nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, especially on the musical theater stage! nbsp;

There's every reason to believe the Huntington Theatre might make a hit of it. They have brought Chicago-based   Mary Zimmerman's acclaimed Goodman Theatre Production to Boston. Zimmerman's career has been built on a transformative magic that transmutes great works of literature into arresting stage drama. (Imagine the pitch meeting for her notion that a staging of Ovid's "Metamporphoses" would draw audiences. That's Ovid, as in the Roman poet from the first century B.C.) The show went on not just to draw audiences but to win Tonys. Her career has embraced a raft of other great works--The Odyssey, The 1001 Nights, and most recently the ridiculously convoluted story lines of 19th century opera in several handsome productions for the Metropolitan Opera.

Zimmerman probably regards the work's gory literary history--including Hellman's refusal to let people use her book after the show was altered--not as a burden, but as an invitation to go back to Voltaire. Her method is reportedly to work closely with the original novel every single night and to come to the actors the next day and help them create the work anew. Sounds a lot like putting a show together from scratch with a living playwright and a gang of energized kids. Voltaire is still winking at us from 1759, and if anybody can catch his gaze, and help us look at ourselves through his wise eyes, it's Zimmerman. Candide opened September 10 at the Huntington and runs through October 16.  Full info at http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/

Trading Reality For Theater, For A While

By Alicia Anstead   |   Friday, July 29, 2011
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My favorite time in a theater is just when the lights go down. It’s usually only a few seconds before the curtain goes up or the music begins, but that tiny moment is when the audience is filled with anticipation and takes the transformative step from reality to imagination. Many directors — Diane Paulus, for instance — are blurring that starting line so theatergoers will make fewer distinctions between art and life. Bravo to all that!

But I have to confess I’m nostalgic about those distinctions. Frankly, sometimes I need a moment to breathe between life and art. That’s what the popular musical The Drowsy Chaperone is about: the moment we surrender reality. The show starts in the dark with a man in a chair sitting alone and talking about his disappointment with theater. He prays to god before every show that it will be entertaining, short and not break the fourth wall. Amen.

I saw Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway in 2006 and then again recently at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, and both times I found myself cheering for this pathetic man who complains about the intrusions of reality in moments of art: A cell phone ringing, for instance. Or the power going off. His agoraphobic anxieties about modern life and his failure at marriage and intimacy are allayed by only one thing. Well, maybe two: A glass of brandy and listening to an old LP of a 1928 musical with superficial characters, a formulaic score and a ridiculous plot. And yet the show transports him from the misery of his shabby apartment and unfulfilled life to the glamour and glory of stars who have white teeth and tap dance. The cast magically materializes in his living room and sings its way through silly problems and zany stunts.

I asked Bob Martin, who co-wrote the musical and originated the role, if the show is a surreal moment or a figment of the chair man's imagination. In other words, is the play really happening in the man’s apartment or just in his mind? Martin was reluctant to answer. But he did tell me that every night after he performed Man in Chair, someone was waiting for him at the stage door to say: I am that guy. I am Man in Chair.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that as we read we must “become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest and king, martyr and executioner.” We must “fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience, or we shall see nothing, learn nothing, keep nothing.”

In some way, all of us who give ourselves over to art are that man in the chair. Drowsy Chaperone is one of the smartest, funniest and saddest musicals ever written. It is also about the triumph of imagination. We may not get what we want out of life — or theater — but a great work of art can literally lift us out of a chair and make us feel we deserve the love we failed at, or walked away from, and that we, too, are stars.

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By Arthur Smith   |   Tuesday, July 26, 2011
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For Colored Girls

By Kim McLarin   |   Friday, July 29, 2011
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Well, I saw it. Lots of reaction. Short version: not as terrible as I feared (and yes, I hate to admit that). But I walked out of the theater feeling as if I had been bludgeoned for two hours. What redeemed it was the astonishing language (Ntozake's) and the performances (which were terrific, almost-uniformly great). I was happy to pay my little 'leven-fifty to support so many beautiful black actresses on the screen. And Perry is definitely growing as a filmmaker, getting all fancy with his shots. Clearly he means well, and wants to celebrate black women (especially Janet Jackson. Can he get off his teenage crush already? The woman cannot act! What was with the Kabuki makeup? And why did Loretta's wig look so awful? Why did she look so bad in general? Poor Loretta ....)

Still I found myself wishing, wishing, wishing someone else had made it, someone who didn't seem to see black womanhood as one, long, joyless, relentless slog of bad choices and victimhood (self-inflicted, to be sure) and abuse. Someone who would not have missed the ultimate joy and affirmation in the original, nor completely denied the frank celebration of a black woman's sexual power in the original (in the movie, sex=death. Period). Someone who didn't think drama=melodrama. I mean, good Lord -- I really did feel beat up by the end. I kept thinking "She didn't mean for the audience to consider suicide, yo!" That was not the feeling I think the play left people with. At least not me.

I think the movie probably stands up better for those who don't know the original, which is legitimate. And, as the bookseller I saw the movie with said, this will drive people to the text (though probably not the folks in the audience howling at every word out of Whoopi's mouth). So, all in all, go on Tyler, with your bold self. Next time, though, please, let someone else write it while you direct?

Five Questions for F. Murray Abraham

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, July 25, 2011
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Abraham comes to Boston as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, opening Tuesday, March 29 at Arts Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre as part of ArtsEmerson’s season.The Oscar-winner talks with WGBH ArtSceNE curator Kara Millerabout staying in shape, listening to Stravinsky, and eating lobster in Boston.
Q:This is an interesting time to be in a play about making loans and charging interest. Do you see The Merchant of Venicehaving particular resonance now?
A: Yes, I really do–on a couple of levels. I think that it examines the idea of justice, and it particularly speaks to our time, as there doesn't appear to be any regard for the other–which doesn't ever seem to change.
I feel very strongly about what has been happening–and helpless too. The political system feels geared towards the wealthy. In the play, Shylock represents something bigger than Jews in the world. He represents anyone who has been oppressed: blacks, Irish, Chinese, Palestinians, many groups.
Q: What is the challenge in engaging with art that is more than 400 years old?
A: That's what makes our production [from New York’s Theatre for a New Audience] so exciting. It's perfectly clear. I'm hoping people will drop down and see it because I think they'll be blown away. It was a big success in New York City and [England’s] Stratford-upon-Avon. Sold out in both venues. I can't wait to get to rehearsal– we're really rediscovering the piece.
When people see the show, I would like them to drop us a note or a line. The play might be life-changing. I really mean it.
Q: Do directors approach Shakespeare differently than they did when you first started acting?
A: I think so. The conceptual director has become very prominent. In some ways, that's unfortunate. They have sacrificed communication through the actor for a concept. Our director [Darko Tresnjak] is different. But I do think that some directors now think of actors as something to be moved around–I don't work with them again.
Q: When you're not acting, what kind of art do you indulge in? And what do you look forward to doing in Boston?
A: I really love art. My closest friend is a painter, and we visit museums at least once a week. Stravinsky is my favorite composer–I can't imagine a world without music. I'm also very defensive about Salieri and his music, and Mozart, who I listen to a lot, is a constant surprise. [Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Salieri in the 1984 movie Amadeus.]
In Boston, I intend to take a look at some of the best places to get lobster. Also, I have friends in Cambridge. I did King Lear there one time, and it was the first place I encountered three 24-hour bookstores. I was really impressed. I will probably also teach a master class or two.
Q: How tough is it to do eight performances a week in a theatre production?
A: It's what I've been doing all my life. My work is to stay in shape–I am my instrument. I'm 71, and I don't think I've been in better shape. I thought I'd be dead at 60. I once did a show where I performed 16 times a week, but I don't think anyone in history has ever loved acting as much as I do. Maybe as much, but not more.

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About the Authors
Valerie Linson Valerie Linson
Valerie Linson is the Managing Producer for WGBHArts.  She is also the Series Producer for Basic Black and the Executive Editor for its accompanying website at WGBH.org. Basic Black is New England's longest-running television program devoted to explorations of the black experience.
Arthur Smith Arthur Smith
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form.  Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center. 
Alicia Anstead Alicia Anstead

Kim McLarin Kim McLarin
Kim McLarin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Taming it Down, Meeting of the Waters and Jump at the Sun, all published by William Morrow. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record and the Associated Press. McLarin has also written for TheRoot.com and Salon.com.

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